40 Books To Unlock Your Creativity And Get You Started On Your Life’s Best Work

Reading about creativity is a great way to inspire yourself, learn about what others have done in your field and motivate yourself to do your best work yet.

There are plenty of books available out there to read about creativity, Amazon has a whole section dedicated to it, with over 5,000 titles currently available. To narrow it down a bit, here are our top picks to get you started on your journey of creativity.

What do they have in common?  If you pick up a few, we think you’ll agree: according to some of the world’s most successful creative minds, creativity is something we all possess. These 40 books teach your how to reach out and grab it.

01. Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

Lazy thinking is the bane of creativity. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman talks about how there are really two different thinking systems within the brain. System 1 lets us make fast decisions based on intuition, while system 2 is more deliberative and slower. Sometimes quick, emotional decisions are great for creativity but often we need to take a set back and reassess, bringing the second system into play. Kahneman explores different exercises you can do to make sure that for any creative decision you make, or any creative thinking you do, you are accessing the correct part of your brain.

02. Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision & Reality – Scott Belsky

Throughout this series on creativity, we have always said that tenacity and determination are just as important to creativity as that initial bright spark. In Making Ideas Happen, Scott Belsky takes this a step further and gives you concrete strategies for realizing your idea and developing the skills to make them happen time and time again.

03. Things I have learned in my life so far – Stefan Sagmeister

Stefan Sagmeister is one of the world’s foremost graphic designers. One of his many beautiful books, Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far incorporates material from his exhibitions alongside his maxims for great design and true creativity.

04. How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World – Steven Johnson

If you learn one thing from How We Got to Now, it would be that we have no idea where we are going, but genius, fate, and serendipity drive us there. Steven Johnson tells wonderful tales of creative genius and the curious connections between one breakthrough and another.

05. The Elements of Style – Strunk and White

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White is a style guide which will allow you to communicate your ideas and creativity most effectivity. The book contains lists of words that are often misused or misspelled, as well as information on punctuation and grammar. It also has some helpful principles of composition to help you write clearer, the most famous probably being number 17: omit needless words.

06. The Laws of Simplicity – John Maeda

John Maeda is one of the world’s top graphic designers and professor at the MIT Media Lab. In The Laws of Simplicity he lays down exactly that – ten laws of simple design that can be followed by creatives, designers, and businesses to find the right balance between simplicity and complexity in their creations.

07. Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Johnson

Another book by creative great Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From looks at how certain individuals, certain societies, and certain companies come up with all the great ideas. He identifies seven patterns that are behind the greatest innovations of the ages.

08. Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative – Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon wrote Steal Like an Artist after a talk he gave to students went viral. The premise is that don’t worry about originality – everything has been done before. Instead embrace yourself, and how you can give you own personal touch and flair to the world through individual creativity.

09. The War of Art – Steven Pressfield

Anyone who is involved with any creativity will understand the warrior metaphors of this book. You are in a constant battle with yourself to overcome resistance to creativity and to win the battle and push through. The War of Art, by writer Steven Pressfield, presents this battle as one that can be won through determination and work. The success comes as a by-product of the work, and will come if you continue battle with the inertia that stops your creativity.

10. How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul – Adrian Shaughnessy

A true How To guide, How to Be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul, Adrian Shaughnessy uses his years of experience, along with that of the leading designers he interviews, to offer practical advice to anyone embarking on a creative career.

11. Jack’s Notebook – Gregg Fraley

Gregg Fraley is an innovation consultant and has worked for some of the world’s largest companies. Jack’s Notebook is all about how he teaches these institutions problem solving skills and how to turn any idea into action.

12. Keep Your Lights On! – Yoris Sebastian

In Keep Your Lights On!, Yoris Sebastian points out an idea that doesn’t get said enough – innovation is everywhere and needed everywhere. Whereas we might concentrate on the big ideas, it is often the smallest changes that make the biggest difference.

13. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow. We have all experienced this elusive concept, when we are totally absorbed in our work and time flies by as great idea follows great idea. But the problem is that this phase is fleeting and we can never summon it when we really need. Step in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, where he reveals how you can achieve this feeling every day, through though exercises and the latest research.

14. Damn Good Advice (For People with Talent!) – George Lois

George Lois is the original (M)Ad Man. A pioneer of the creative revolution that advertising underwent in the sixties, in Damn Good Advice, he offers bite-size chunks of wisdom from his career in design and advertising. Offering practical advice, facts, anecdotes and inspiration, it should be on the coffee table of any aspiring designer.

15. Big Questions in Creativity 2014 – Mary Kay Culpepper & Cynthia Burnett

Big Questions in Creativity looks at the state of creative thinking in academia and how some of the field’s critical thinkers, such as Buffalo State professor Cynthia Burnett are choosing to tackle these issues.

16. Manage Your Day-to-Day – Jocelyn Glei

Like a few of the books on this list, Manage your Day-to-Day by Jocelyn Glei is a compendium of excellent advice from some of the world’s foremost creative minds. Marketer Seth Godin, Professor Cal Newport, Unclutterer editor Erin Rooney Doland, and author Gretchen Rubin all offer advice in the book. The book focusses on how to build a workable routine to maximize your productivity and creativity during the day and to stay focused and make sure you have the time to create, whatever else needs to be done.

17. How to Get Ideas – Jack Foster

Often creative worry about the well of ideas drying out. Jack Foster’s How to Get Ideas can make sure that your well is flooding your mind every day with new and inventive concepts. An advertising executive for 35 years, he tells you how to take the mystery and anxiety out of idea creation and replace it with fun and curiosity.

18. Committed: A Memoir of the Artist’s Road – Patrick Ross

Patrick Ross’ memoir is one of the most original books on this list. In Committed, he charts his shift from journalist to creative story-teller through the prism of a cross-country road trip and his mental illness. An inspiring work for anyone that struggles with their creative muse.

19. Hello World: Where Design Meets Life – Alice Rawsthorn

Alice Rawsthorn, the design critic for the International Herald Tribune, takes you on a historical and geographical journey in Hello World, as she details how design has shaped the world, and how the world has shaped design.

20. The Creative Habit – Twyla Tharp

Twyla Tharp has spent a lifetime trying to make creativity a habit, and in The Creative Habit she shares what she has learned through her years as a leading choreographer. The main thrust of her book is that you have to make the conscious decision to allow creativity to be an integral part of your life. Once you allow yourself to be a truly creative person then you can start to design rituals, routines, and exercises around it to become far more creative.

21. The Book of Doing – Allison Arden

The Book of Doing is a book about letting go of your adult hang ups and casting back to when you would let your mind run riot with creativity and ideas. Allison Arden offers ideas and activities to get you back to that more innocent state and to use it to generate a constant stream of ideas for your adult self.

22. Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity – Josh Linker

A New York Times bestseller, Josh Linker’s Disciplined Dreaming is all about how individuals and organizations can harness their creativity and turn ideas into concrete breakthroughs.

23. Art Before Breakfast: A Zillion Ways to be More Creative No Matter How Busy You Are – Danny Gregory

A wonderful book for anyone looking to unleash their creative side, but struggling to find the time. Danny Gregory fills Art Before Breakfast with practical advice and techniques for always finding the space to be creative.

24. Creativity, Inc. – Ed Catmull

Even if you don’t know the name Ed Catmull, you will have definitely seen his work. Catmull is the head of Pixar, the animation studio behind Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Up. Catmull designed the software behind the studio’s exceptional animations and Creativity, Inc. is about how Pixar manages creativity and allows it designers, programmers, writers, and animators to perform to the highest standards.

25. The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking – Roger Martin

Integrative thinking is the big idea in Roger Martin’s The Opposable Mind. Instead of reading about how the greats of the past did it and trying to match them, instead you should look for the underlying cause of their creative thinking – the ability to integrate a number of great ideas and to ask the right questions.

26. The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently

We have already told you how good doodling is for your creative muscles. Sunni Brown’s book The Doodle Revolution is what started the recent, er, doodle revolution.

27. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation – Tim Brown

Tim Brown is one of the leaders behind IDEO, and Change by Design can be seen as his manifesto on how design works. Less about creative genius and more about creative determination and examination.

28. The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain – Betty Edwards

In this new, revised version of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain Betty Edwards draws on the latest neuroscientific research to understand how and why we draw and why it is such a useful and wonderful talent for all types of professions and creatives. Whether you are an artist or not, you will be able to get a lot out of this book. It teaches you how to draw and how to get the most out of drawing as a problem-solving tool, a way to express yourself, and a way to realise the ideas in your head.

29. The Copywriters Bible – How 32 of the World’s Best Advertising Writers Write their Copy – Alistair Crompton

The Copywriter’s Bible is a collection of Alistair Crompton’s interviews with the leading lights in advertising and design. It is a treasure trove of helpful, new information that will give you plain, direct advice whenever you are creatively stuck.

30. Stimulated!: Habits to Spark Your Creative Genius at Work – Andrew Pek & Jeannine McGlade

Stimulated! is for those of us that are stuck in a rut. If you are having trouble getting those creative juices flowing, then Andrew Pek and Jeannine McGlade have five habits that will get you out of the rut and on the creative road again.

31. Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity – Keith Sawyer

Zig-Zag is an empirical look at what it takes to make creativity. Keith Sawyer, a researcher in creative thinking, draws on this research to determine what makes highly successful people so creative.

32. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within – Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg’s answer to writing is to do away with the rules. In Writing Down the Bones Goldberg urges writers, new and old, to free themselves from their internal censor and the rules they have built up for themselves and look at writing as a method for inner exploration.

33. Story – Robert McKee

Though ostensibly about screenwriting, Story is a book for any creative. Robert McKee breaks down the story structure into its component parts before being it all back together again. From this book, you can learn how any story, in any medium should be told.

34. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work – Mason Currey

In Daily Rituals, Mason Currey has collected the habits, routines and rituals of the world’s greatest artists, scientists, and thinkers and explained them in great detail. If you want to follow in the footsteps of giants, this is the book for you.

35. The Little Spark – 30 Ways to Ignite Your Creativity – Carrie Bloomston

The Little Spark is all about taking you back to when you had that spark inside you as a child. It never went away, only became subsumed by adult anxiety. In her book, Carrie Bloomston shows you how you can re-ignite that spark again.

36. Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, Your Business, and Maybe Even the World -Warren Berger

With Glimmer, Warren Berger looks at what happens when the fundamentals of design leave the studio and are incorporated into other aspects of our lives. He suggests that the world can learn a lot from how designers think, learn, and work and follows visionaries as they take these lessons from design and into medicine, science, and engineering.

37. Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All – Tom Kelley

Creative Confidence is exactly the type of book I think everyone should read. The central premise of Tom Kelley in the book is that everyone has creative abilities, it is just unleashing them that is the issue. In this book Kelley shows you how you can do exactly that and start to unlock your brains potential.

38. Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered – Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon comes up trumps again with Show Your Work!. This time his main message is one of generosity and sharing. Whereas we might want to keep our ideas to ourselves, what really work for creativity is to get those ideas out there and amongst the community.

39. Creativity On Demand: How to Ignite and Sustain the Fire of Genius – Michael J. Gelb

In Creativity on Demand, Michael J. Gelb gives you techniques and pratices to make sure that you are never struck down by the accursed artists block, and can instead always find creativity within.

40. Work for Money, Design for Love: Answers to the Most Frequently Asked Questions About Starting and Running a Successful Design Business (Voices That Matter) – David Airey

In Work for Money, Design for Love, David Airey sets out to answer all the questions that every designer and creative has when they decide that this is the career for them – how?

That’s a fair few books to be getting on with, so I won’t take up more of your time, but to say this – the common thread in these books is that determination is key to success. You might worry about your talent, your ideas, and your abilities, but what will ultimately decide your fate is whether you have the determination to push through challenges that confront you to your true creative ability.

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Andrew Tate is a freelance writer and neuroscientist who has worked on understanding the brain and how it learns in the UK, Switzerland, and the US. His interest in design stems from a passion for proper presentation, especially of data, his love of doodling, and his inability to draw anything more sophisticated than a stick figure (and his awe at anyone that can).